As China’s online crackdown continues apace ahead of the Communist Party’s 19th People’s Congress, authorities now appear to have begun arresting individuals at random on the flimsiest of pretexts.
Reports have emerged from the southern province of Guangdong of the detention of Zhang Guanghong in the provincial capital Guangzhou. He was arrested by members of the Cybersecurity Police as a result of posts he made on the popular Chinese messaging service WeChat.
Disappearance over WeChat posts
His home was searched and four mobile phones were taken away along with a server. Zhang was reportedly released after 24 hours, but family and friends have not heard from him since and calls to his mobile have gone unanswered. When the police station he was held at was asked about his whereabouts, the office on the phone replied, “I don’t know [where he is].”
A friend of Zhang’s told Radio Free Asia, “He was detained recently because of what had been posted”. However, he declined to comment further or on-record, saying “There is huge political pressure at the moment because of the 19th Party Congress, and many people are worried about being arrested, so we daren’t speak out.”
Zhang is not the only person to have been detailed by the Cybersecurity Police in Guangzhou. Zhang Weichu, who is a human rights activist, was arrested earlier this week for buying a router which enabled her to get around Chinese online censorship.
Questioned over buying a router
Zhang had recently purchased a KF router, which is legally licensed for sale in China to companies and organizations who conduct do business online with clients and customers on the other side of the Great Firewall. The router works like a VPN, offering connections to more than 100 servers outside China.
She had only used the router once when she was knocked up by the police. They claimed the router was illegal and tried to confiscate it. Zhang, who knew the law in this area demanded a written receipt, which was refused. She also questioned the police about which clause of China’s cybercrime laws the router was in breach of. They were unable to answer her but instead began threatening her.
The stories about police intimidation and detention of these two individuals has managed to make it into the public domain. There are no doubt countless more examples, where authorities have succeeded in keeping it quiet. Usually, such arrests will only be made public when the Communist Party authorities are trying to use fear to keep the population in check.
Party Congress clampdown continues apace
With their hugely sensitive Party Congress imminent, authorities all over China have been stepping such activities to ensure that nothing disrupts their showpiece event. Other examples include Tibetans in Qinghai province being warned by authorities not to use social media.
Tibetans, who strive for independence from China, have long been subjected to stronger internet controls than most as the Communist Party attempts to keep a check on any separatist movements in the region.
As we have reported earlier in the year, China is scaling up its online censorship with new policies including a formal ban on all VPNs, which is expected to come into force on February 1st next year. Needless to say, this ban has had the opposite effect and, as we reported over the weekend, Chinese tourists are now stocking up on VPNs while they are overseas to ensure they can still access the internet after this ban comes into place.
As the stories from Guangdong province illustrate, there has rarely been a more dangerous time to try and enjoy online freedom in China. The latest series of arrests will be designed to show the rest of the population what will happen if they dare to try and get around online censorship.
No doubt, the Communist Party’s tactics of fear will work with some internet users. But many more will continue to seek free and unconstrained internet access. As much power as the Chinese Communist Party wields domestically, it cannot stop international VPN providers from operating nor from making every effort to circumvent Chinese internet restrictions.
Chinese people will always be able to download a VPN from somewhere. But they will now have to be even more careful than before that the Chinese authorities do not find out they are using one.